When Katrina Donovan Fleming recently joined us on our podcast to review the film Powder, from a unique animal rights perspective, I was instantly smitten with her keen ability to look at things with a discerning, yet non-judgmental eye. But clearly she’s had practice ruminating on animal issues: Katrina is the voice behind Suburban Snow White, which provides “musings” from a “former omnivore” on her “new, animal-friendly life.” When she agreed to review Chasing Doctor Dolittle: Learning the Language of Animals, by Con Slobodchikoff, Ph.D., for Our Hen House — also, of course, from an animal rights view — I thanked my lucky stars. I’d been holding off on assigning this review, because I wanted just the right person. Katrina, a teacher and former Peace Corps volunteer, is that person. I think you’ll find her insights to be as refreshing as I do.
Book Review: Chasing Doctor Dolittle: Learning the Language of Animals by Con Slobodchikoff, Ph.D.
Review by Katrina Donovan Fleming
Upon first seeing the book title Chasing Doctor Dolittle: Learning the Language of Animals (St. Martin’s Press, 2012), I began humming “If We Could Talk to the Animals” from the 1967 Doctor Dolittle movie. As a fourth grader, I had proudly memorized the tune for a school concert.
If we could talk to the animals, learn their languages
Think of all the things we could discuss!
If we could walk with the animals, talk with the animals,
Grunt and squeak and squawk with the animals,
And they could squeak and squawk and speak and talk to us!
As young children, many of us assume that our companion animals – and indeed, all animals – understand us when we speak to them. And we claim to understand what they are thinking and feeling equally well. As we mature though, we are cautioned not to anthropomorphize. We are told that, in fact, animals don’t possess sophisticated language as humans do, but survive using simple instinct.
Or do they?
Author Con Slobodchikoff, Ph.D., a university professor in biology, uses his extensive fieldwork studying the language of prairie dogs as a jumping-off point for exploring languages across the animal kingdom. Specifically, he focuses on the following ways that language is used: warning others about approaching enemies, signaling where food is located, finding a sweetheart, scaring away one’s competition, and introducing oneself.
While the book’s most in-depth studies naturally focus on his area of expertise, he weaves the language patterns of prairie dogs with those of other animals, including humans. One of my favorite aspects of the book, in fact, is how his adept comparisons of humans with other earthlings knock our species off its self-created pedestal. He’s no human hater, by any means. But he does educate us in how much our collective language has in common, all with a gentle twinkle in his eye.
The author uses a great deal of scientific data and lingo and explains it all with the respectful enthusiasm of your favorite teacher. And like a good teacher, he grounds this data with anecdotes of the many animals he’s encountered in his life, enabling us to understand the everyday behavior of animals right outside our front door. (I was especially taken with what I learned about the black-capped chickadees, birds who commonly swoop around my bird feeder.)
I normally don’t mark up my books – it feels mildly offensive, somehow – but I couldn’t hold myself back from underlining dozens of passages (in pen!) each time something grabbed my activist heart. Throughout the margins I scribbled phrases such as Exactly!, Brilliant!, and This says it all! It quickly became clear that I would not be able to include all the gems here for this review. But there’s something to be said for discovering the treasures in this book all on your own.
Language, as Slobodchikoff points out, “is the last gulf that separates us from all of the other animals.” The following passage gives great hope as to how such studies can ultimately aid animals against the onslaught of humans:
The idea that animals have language is frightening to some people, but it is also empowering to animals. When people find out that an animal species has a language, they often look at that species in a more compassionate way … [W]hen I tell people that prairie dogs have a sophisticated language, opinions change … It’s as if they suddenly start to empathize with this creature, not as some kind of mindless pest …, but as a living, breathing partner in the natural world that surrounds us.
Through his personal narratives, you get a glimpse of his sensitive affection and respect for animals. Like a protective mother, he continually chases predators from the small lizards who frequent his yard. He goes out of his way to ensure the safety of the rattlesnakes who live under his porch, despite any danger they might present. And he laments over people eating calamari, noting that once the squid is killed, “it’s too late to see that this is an animal with amazing language skills.”
And yet he casually mentions eating chicken and lamb during a meal in Morocco. This disconnect was surprising at first, but it didn’t ruin the book for me, perhaps because I strongly sensed that if his kind nature were educated in the reality of meat production, his tune would quickly change. (Someone needs to set up a lunch date for him and vegan extraordinaire Colleen Patrick-Goudreau.)
Related to that, none of the author’s prairie dog studies come across as exploitative; he observed and recorded them in their natural habitat. However, some of the cited studies done by other scientists seemed to put unnecessary stress on animals. For example, in one study on rooster calls, they flashed images of different predators to the captive roosters and then observed the birds’ resulting behavior. Similar to the author’s consumption of animals, though, this did not turn me off of the book, as much as I might disagree with the tactics of some of the scientists.
You do not finish Chasing Dr. Dolittle with a primer for each animal’s language, but you do leave with an increased appreciation for how complex and multimodal animal language can be, how misunderstood it has been in the scientific community, and how much remains to be uncovered. You find yourself standing by the author on the tip of the proverbial iceberg, speculating on what lies beneath. It’s humbling and yet very exciting, particularly when you think of how the results of this work can benefit our fellow creatures.
We activists often say we need to be the voice for the animals. With the work of Slobodchikoff, though, perhaps it is the animals who will ultimately speak for themselves. We just need to become better educated and versed listeners.
Katrina Donovan Fleming is a writer, teacher, artist, gardener, and returned Peace Corps volunteer who became vegan almost two years ago at the tender age of 40. She lives just outside of Boston with her husband and two cats, and writes a blog called Suburban Snow White, where she muses on creating and enjoying an animal-friendly life. She is also a regular contributor to Vegbooks. A professionally trained flutist, Katrina now dabbles in banjo, a development likely inspired by Kermit.